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Published June 25, 2012, 11:41 AM

Preaching what he practices

WILLOW CITY, N.D. — Kevin Larson stood in a field of lush barley on a cool mid-June morning. He’s been told the field potentially could yield 100 bushels or more of malting barley per acre.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

WILLOW CITY, N.D. — Kevin Larson stood in a field of lush barley on a cool mid-June morning. He’s been told the field potentially could yield 100 bushels or more of malting barley per acre.

The field, which has light soil, was put into pasture after it was hammered by wind erosion during drought in the 1930s. But six years ago, Larson, began cropping it with the help of modern no-till practices and equipment. “For 65 years, this field was deemed unfarmable. Look at it now,” says the Willow City, N.D., farmer.

This spring, the field was seeded with a Cross Slot air drill — a product that Larson thinks can increase the popularity of no-till farming in the region.

Larson, who’s been involved in no-till farming for more than 30 years, became the Cross Slot’s product specialist for North Dakota and South Dakota in 2011. He carries parts for Cross Slot products, provides service for them and conducts field demonstrations.

“I’m not a salesman,” says Larson, who continues to farm.

Earlier this year, Larson was named the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association’s Farmer of the Year. He was recognized, among other things, for introducing the Cross Slot seeder to the region.

Cross Slot is based in New Zealand. Its products have been used there and elsewhere for many years.

Put simply, the Cross Slot technology works like a zipper, opening the soil for insertion of seed and fertilizer and then folding the soil back into place, according to Cross Slot officials.

The technology involves ultra-low disturbance of the soil and allows the drill to seed through large amounts of surface residue, the company says.

Increasing popularity

No-till farming continues to grow in popularity nationwide. About 35 percent of U.S. cropland is planted with no-tillage practices, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 2009 report looked at barley, corn, cotton, oats, rice, sorghum, soybeans and wheat, which accounted for a combined 93 percent of U.S. crop acres that year.

In North Dakota, no till has gone from being the “abnorm” to the “norm,” says Alan Ness of Underwood, N.D.

He’s a former North Dakota state agronomist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and a former executive secretary of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.

Ness first became active with no till in the late 1970s, when he worked for the Soil Conservation Service, which now is called the NRCS.

Back then, many farmers weren’t quite sure what to make of no till. But over time, the practice gained momentum and area farmers became increasingly familiar with it, he says.

Today, no till is so well established that young farmers “just know this is the way to do it,” he says.

Starting on his own farm

Larson says he became involved with Cross Slot to bring the technology to his own farm.

His family has been farming in North Dakota since the 1880s. Larson himself began farming 34 years ago.

He first heard of no-till farming from the North Dakota State University Extension Service 32 years ago. He decided that no-till practices made sense on his farm and began implementing some of them.

Eleven years ago, Larson met John Baker, a New Zealand scientist and businessman. Baker developed the Cross Slot system over the course of 30 years of research and ultimately commercialized it.

Two signs of Baker’s prominence in world agricultural and technological circles are:

In 2010, the Cross Slot technology was named a finalist in the corporate environment section of the World Technology Awards.

This year, Baker was nominated for the 2012 World Food Prize. The award ultimately went to an Israeli scientist for his work in bringing water to crops in dry and arid land.

Larson, impressed by his meeting 11 years ago with Baker, began working six years ago with Cross Slot to fine-tune the product for North Dakota and South Dakota.

Last year, he became Cross Slot’s regional product specialist.

Larson has three sons, two of whom farm. A third son, currently a grain buyer in North Dakota, could begin farming, too.

all of his time, to the company and its products.

Even so, “I really wanted to bring this technology to my own farm. This was my main motivation for getting involved,” he says.

His wife, Martha, cautioned him to set realistic expectations.

“I told him that building a business like this takes time,” she says.

The Larsons haven’t sold any Cross Slot drills yet, but they’ve made contacts and spread knowledge of the product across the region, Kevin Larson says.

“We’re making progress,” he says.

Another N.D. connection

The frame for the Larson’s Cross Slot drill was manufactured by Gates Manufacturing of Lansford, N.D.

Peter Gates, an engineer at the Lansford company, attended college with Kevin Larson’s sons — a connection that contributed to Cross Slot and Gate Manufacturing hooking up on the project.

“It’s been a good relationship,” Gates says.

The Lansford company has made two drills so far, one for the Larsons and another for use in Canada.

The drill used by the Larsons is 45 feet long, has 45 openings and weighs 40,000 pounds, roughly the same as 10 normal-sized cars.

“It very heavy,” which helps the drill insert seed and fertilizer through heavy soil residue, Gates says.

Gates Manufacturing employees have enjoyed working with the New Zealand company, Gates says.

Demonstration day

Larson and his family demonstrated the Cross Slot drill on June 11 on the family farm. About 50 people, most of them area farmers, attended on a wet, windy day on which temperatures sunk to the high 40s.

The visitors included Brian Blessum, a Rugby, N.D., farmer.

He says he was checking out the drill because “we’re always interested in seed and fertilizer placement.”

Other companies also make no-till air drills. The Cross Slot drill works in a wider variety of situations than its competitors, Larson says.

The Cross Slot drill comes in a number of sizes, including a 65-foot version, says Mark Scott, a New Zealand-based product specialist for the company who attended the demonstration day at Larson’s farm.

The demonstration included running the drill over a few acres in a nearby pasture. Other fields already had been planted, and seeding part of the pasture was the best option to give visitors a look at the drill in action.

The drill used by the Larsons sells for $320,000. Farmers who buy the drill don’t need to buy tillage equipment such as discs and harrows and can “invest that money in this product,” he says.

Also, the drill will last for many years, Larson says. Promotional material for the seeder refers to its “robust 20-year design life.”

Larson says he’s confident the Cross Slot drill has a bright future in the Upper Midwest.

“I really believe in this technology,” he says.

Information: www.facebook.

com/LarsonCrossSlot or